Sketch April 2014

The Madness of Matthew Weiner

On the eve of the show’s final season, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner talks about disappointment and redemption—and reveals his dreamlike perception of everyday life.

Weiner is the slightest bit touchy about his reputation as a control freak, especially when it comes to the period details of the show. (He told me that anyone who thinks any form of entertainment—a live football game, Project Runway, improv—“does not have the level of control exerted on it that I have is mistaken.”) Still, in the run-down, unglamorous warren of AMC’s studio offices, his is an island of neatness and order. The bar in the corner once graced the office of Roger Sterling, and the walls are decorated with vintage ads and a Japanese poster for Mad Men.

I had expected Weiner’s mind to be precise and intensely rational, and it was—but those strains coexisted with others. The first thing he mentioned when we sat down was having peeked into an office earlier that day and seen someone, from the back, talking. Weiner said he was suddenly consumed by the fear that the man he saw was talking to no one. Much of Mad Men is driven by Weiner’s id, by his own dreams, by what he calls a “wordless instinct,” a conviction that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Some aspects of the show may seem “dreamlike or whatever” to others, but Weiner told me he often experiences things in a very different way than most other people do.

Several times during the course of our two-hour conversation, I realized that some things about Mad Men that I thought everyone agreed upon were not obvious to its creator. “Did you know Glen was going to become cool?,” I asked. “That was such a surprise to me.” Glen is an old friend of Sally Draper’s, and he shows up in Season Six as an alpha at a boarding-school party, liquor in his pocket. Until then, he’d been a neighbor’s weird son who’d spied on Betty Draper, Sally’s mother, on the toilet, then asked for a lock of her hair. Although he is played by Weiner’s actual son, I asked the question anyway, because everyone knows that Glen is a little weird (creepy is a word often used to describe him). Well, everyone but the man who created him. “I never thought Glen was weird,” Weiner said, looking not injured, just genuinely confused. “I identify with him a lot, not just because he’s my kid. I mean that character, a lot of the things that he did.”

Weiner is not an actor, but sometimes he goes to casinos and pretends to be Tunisian, Russian, or Armenian. I’d heard him confess this on a podcast once, so I asked him about it. (This also seems like something Glen might do one day.) Why would he pretend to be someone else? And why those nationalities? He doesn’t do it to take a holiday from his persona, he told me; although his name is famous, people generally don’t recognize him. He does it just to do it. Perhaps a clue to his motivations can be gleaned from a line that had lately been echoing in Weiner’s head, a line that had been written for Bert Cooper, one of the founders of the show’s original ad firm: “When you hit 40, you realize that you’ve met or seen every kind of person there is.” Weiner is in his 40s, and is suddenly “realizing I am running into the same kind of people.” He doesn’t know what he wants to do after Mad Men, and he doesn’t seem to want to think about it. Roger Sterling sometimes talks this way too, about life as a series of doors that lead only to other doors. He talks this way when he’s on the psychiatrist’s couch and is inching toward depression, when work and women are not exciting enough to hold his attention. But then he has a vivid dream or one of his wacky adventures—going to a casino?—and color is restored.

“I have a very normal life,” Weiner says. “But I don’t, obviously. I have this entire toolbox to live my fantasies, and that has been a far less destructive way to live them … And I think that makes me a very lucky person.”

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Hanna Rosin, an Atlantic national correspondent, is the author of the book The End of Men based on her story in the July/August 2010 Atlantic.

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